The Urgency of Now: Why Obama Needs to Take the Lead on North Korea

The Urgency of NowUS-China Impasse

In the lead up to President Obama’s recent visit to Beijing for APEC, North Korea seemed high on the list of priorities for his bilateral summit with Xi Jinping. Perhaps in their tête-à-tête Xi gave vent to his annoyance with Pyongyang, tempting Obama to take some comfort in the notion that he and Xi were basically on the same page, and that Washington can continue to lead North Korea policy from behind Beijing. But for a summit that generated some real deliverables on climate change, maritime security and visa policy, North Korea was conspicuously absent even from the after-summit spin. It is time for the administration to come to grips with the fact that, despite some new rhetoric, China’s North Korea policy is not going to change. If progress is going to come from anywhere, it will have to be Washington.

Beijing’s North Korea policy is built around three long-standing principles: denuclearization, stability and peaceful dialogue. There are obvious and awkward tensions between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, yet China remains fully engaged with the DPRK across the economic, political and diplomatic spectrums, from allowing cross-border trade and investment, to hosting official delegations, workers and students, to calling for resumption of the Six Party Talks as opposed to more sanctions and censure. China continues to enforce the legal minimum of UN mandated sanctions, and the leveling off of trade has more to do with North Korea’s deliberate strategy to diversify away from overdependence on China.

American officials typically assume that Beijing has all the leverage over Pyongyang, and with a tougher approach could push Kim toward denuclearization. But Chinese insist it is Washington that holds “the key,” as one senior Chinese official told me recently, to unlocking the door of a nuclear-free peninsula, by returning to direct negotiations with Pyongyang and offering security and economic incentives to denuclearize. American hopes in a Chinese sword cutting the North Korean nuclear knot are wishful thinking. Did Obama come out of APEC with an appreciation of that inconvenient truth?

Inter-Korean Risk

If joint US-China action on denuclearization remains at an impasse, perhaps inter-Korean dynamics could be the catalyst for progress? Maybe South Korean President Park Geun-hye can assume the mantle of leadership on dealing with Pyongyang and its runaway nuclear program?

Such hopes spiked in early October with the dramatic appearance of a North Korean delegation, led by Hwang Pyong So and Choe Ryong Hae, in Seoul. The Hwang-Choe visit opened up a direct, high-level political channel between North and South. The rumor mill back then in Seoul was that a new forward-leaning approach by Park was being spearheaded by National Intelligence Service director Lee Byung-ki, and was designed to make good on the president’s Dresden declaration, a speech on reunification in which she promised to increase trust and improve ties with the North.

In the weeks after the historic Hwang-Choe visit, however, inter-Korean relations fell back into a rut. A mere three days after the North Koreans landed in Incheon for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, Korean naval vessels fired at each other across their contested boundary in the West Sea. Three days after that, North Korean soldiers shot live munitions at balloons launched by anti-DPRK activists as they floated across the DMZ, and South Korean soldiers returned fire. An unnerving pattern of incidents along the NLL-DMZ continuum emerged, with considerable risks of escalation. Both sides are taking the high ground and pointing the finger at the other. The South claims to be acting in self defense in order to deter further provocations. The North claims to be acting with restraint and in defense of their territorial sovereignty.

In mid-October, Pyongyang put forward a promising five-point proposal for concrete steps that both sides could take to ease tensions and avoid unintentional conflict on the maritime border. But Seoul betrayed no interest, at least publicly, in pursuing the opening. President Park’s North Korea policy remains enigmatic, but she seems content to stage manage, not transform, the relationship with Pyongyang, dangling carrots and holding up sticks without seeming to really want to use either. The South Korean military meanwhile are employing a new disproportionality 3:1 deterrence model that raises the risk of a minor NLL or DMZ incident, of the kind occurring on a regular basis, triggering a grave escalatory cycle.

In terms of conventional security, in other words, inter-Korean relations are unstable. At the broader political level, there is scant evidence of forward movement by the Park and Kim governments—although backchannel churning, of the kind that presumably orchestrated the Hwang-Choe visit, cannot be ruled out. But even if inter-Korean back channels are working on something, when it comes to the nuclear issue, Seoul shows no signs of taking the lead. Indeed, the most significant—arguably the only significant—policy shift that Park made vis-à-vis the North was to remove denuclearization as the essential precondition for improvement in inter-Korean ties. She is open to enhancing cooperation even in the absence of progress on denuclearization, although she has been timid in actually doing so.

At APEC, Park’s summit with Xi gave no impetus one way or the other to the North Korean nuclear issue. Both leaders fell back on boilerplate language, and seemed much more interested in “win-win” PRC-ROK issues, most notably completing their free trade agreement. Park’s de-emphasis on denuclearization is a sensible approach given the complexities of inter-Korean relations as well as ROK-China relations. But it also means that Washington would be foolish to look to Seoul to drive forward the denuclearization process.

The Clapper Mission

Obama cannot count on either Xi Jinping or Park Geun-hye to start the heavy lifting required to freeze, slow down, reverse, and eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. His other Six Party Talks partners are even less reliable these days. Vladimir Putin is showing reinvigorated interest in diplomatic and economic engagement with the North, while Shinzo Abe is pursuing a risky gambit to resolve Japan’s abduction issue in return for partial sanctions relief. Moscow, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing all support the ultimate objective of denuclearization, but none are investing the political capital or taking the diplomatic lead to make it happen. Obama’s preference of leading from behind just won’t work on this one.

Can the United States, then, retake the North Korean bull by the horns? Can Obama be convinced to retire “strategic patience” and shift to a more proactive approach?

Perhaps there is a ray of hope to be found in the unusual trip by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to Pyongyang. Clapper seems to have been the right envoy for the wrong reasons. Publicly at least, the Obama administration claimed they sent him because he was “not a diplomat” and therefore carried no broader foreign policy writ. But the DNI was an appropriate choice because North Korea’s security-intelligence apparatus, rather than its diplomats, were behind the detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, and on top of that, play a key role in Pyongyang’s national security strategy and foreign policy. In other words, he “matched” well. Even more importantly, by following his instincts as an intelligence officer, Clapper wisely made use of his time on the ground in Pyongyang, in direct contact with North Korean officials, to get a read on the Kim Jong Un regime, and to think in a more sophisticated way about who we are really dealing with in the DPRK. Accidentally perhaps, Clapper pulled the rug out from the current North Korea policy and laid conceptual groundwork for a very different approach.

In recounting his trip to The Wall Street Journal, Clapper focused on three interlocutors—Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong, Director of Reconnaissance General Bureau Kim Yong Chol, and a young, unnamed escort. From these interactions, Clapper came away with a picture of North Korean politics fragmented along generational lines and divided into moderates and hardliners. And while Clapper identifies these internal tensions, with Kim Jong Un presumably playing the role of arbiter, nowhere does he imply that North Korea is on the brink of collapse. Clapper’s impressions are the same as a growing body of scholarly work on North Korea as a fragmented yet resilient authoritarian state.

This picture of how North Korean domestic politics work has important foreign policy implications for US diplomacy. Obama’s current policy assumes a very different picture of the DPRK, as monolithic and anachronistic, as evil and infantile, and as fragile to the point of imminent collapse. On that basis, the policy of “strategic patience” might make sense. But if, as Clapper’s observations and academic research suggests, the DPRK is here to stay, albeit fraught with internal tensions over which way forward under Kim Jong Un, then simply sitting on one’s hands loses its strategic rationale. US policy should be considerably more proactive, flexible and probing, strengthening the hands of moderates wherever possible, looking for pragmatic deals that advance American and regional interests, and, along the way, gaining a better sense of internal dynamics.

Clapper, to his credit, broke the basic commandments of Obama’s North Korea policy as it is currently defined and articulated to the American people. Asked by his young escort if he would be willing to return, Clapper told the Journal, “I said if I got an invitation I certainly would… I do think there is the potential here for change and dialogue in the future.” There goes the administration mantra of “no talks for talks’ sake” (and good riddance).

Clapper’s mission also broke Obama’s second commandment—“no reward for bad behavior”—by “caving” to Pyongyang’s demand for a Cabinet-level official in return for releasing two American “hostages.” Yet, rather than dwell on the moral hazard or fret over bad press, Clapper took advantage of the situation to gain insights into the nature of the Kim Jong Un regime, and then shared those views with the public through media interviews upon his return. The Obama administration, by defining even just talking to North Koreans as a form of reward, has gone out of its way to avoid gaining direct knowledge or insight into North Korea politics, during a highly sensitive and critical period of transition to Kim Jong Un rule. Our policy makers are left trying to change the behavior of North Korea’s leadership without ever interacting with those leaders.

The intelligence community exists to support policy, not make it. But “support” ought to include pointing out when facts on the ground overseas contradict policy assumptions in the White House. Clapper’s analysis opens up a new approach that Obama’s new-ish team of North Korea policy makers would do well to consider as part of an overdue policy review as the Administration heads into its fourth quarter.

The president’s grand strategy is under siege by critics on the right, the left and even the center. He has two years left in office to make progress on his major foreign policy priorities, including eliminating the nuclear threat on a global level. Relations with Russia have been tumultuous, from a promising “reset” to the current Ukraine crisis, yet Obama has doggedly pursued progress on the nuclear front. On Iran, the president has invested serious political and diplomatic capital, in the face of domestic and international criticism, by pursuing a negotiated resolution to the Iranian nuclear problem. Yet when it comes to North Korea, he has fatalistically signed off on a sanctions-based policy of “strategic patience,” authorizing only one brief period of proactive negotiation (the Leap Deal fiasco from July 2011 to April 2012).

What exactly is Obama’s “strategic patience” waiting for? If he’s been waiting for the DPRK to collapse during the power transition from a sickly Kim Jong Il to a young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un, it’s time to acknowledge Kim appears to be firmly in charge and the North Korean state fully intact. If he’s been waiting for Pyongyang to return unilaterally to its denuclearization obligations under the September 2005 agreement, it’s time to recognize that the opposite has taken place—North Korea now has a full-fledged uranium enrichment program to complement its plutonium program, and two additional nuclear tests along with numerous missile tests that have taken place on Obama’s watch.

Will President Obama be content to wait out his final two years so that North Korea has time to build more bombs and test more missiles? Will he continue to wait in vain for Beijing to tighten the screws on Pyongyang, for Park to talk sense into Kim, or for the DPRK to collapse under its own weight? Or, pondering the implications of the Clapper mission, will he ask his best North Korea experts to come up with new ideas for a more proactive, strategic and effective policy?

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea